Ah, “Barbary.” My favorite among The Dead Ride Fast.
An initial concept when I began writing my Strange Wests stories was a focus on water.
Western landscapes in both books and movies can be divvied into two categories, either mesa-choked desert or rolling plains. Forgotten is the importance of watercraft in the expansion of the western frontier. Think of the major American cities situated on Mark Twain’s Mississippi alone: Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis. One historian (I can’t remember who) called New Orleans the gateway between the Old South and the Wild West. Much of eastern and southern Texas, in fact, was settled by folks who arrived via ship from NOLA. In 1850, California with its 840 miles of coastline became our 31st state, sandwiching a wide swathe of unexplored land between it and the rest of the states. Some of its settlers crossed the continent the hard way but others went by sea, most of them arriving via San Francisco.
I wanted to set a sailing story in San Francisco, which for the second half of the 19th century was probably the US’s largest city west of the Mississippi (by 1880 it was the nation’s ninth most populous). It was very much a frontier city, so raucous and dangerous that its Vigilance Committees — organized in the face of horrible police and government corruption — gave us the word vigilante.
Married to this setting was my fascination with 19th-century mummy unrolling. I also wanted to experiment with an untrustworthy narrator who spoke in a rich, overwrought style not unlike that of Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance — a style I call my Pompous Purple. Writing in Pompous Purple can be tricky; it takes a special kind of editor to get the joke, and I have far more unsold Purple manuscripts sitting on my hard drive than I have in print. Fortunately, Andy Cox at Black Static loved “Barbary” and bought it immediately. After publication it received a fair amount of attention on review blogs.
I wrote other “wet Westerns” too, stories about privateers in the Gulf of Mexico (“Galveston”), riverboat gamblers (“Rio Grande”), New Orleans rising above the bayou (“Crescent City”). But “Barbary” is the best of them.